From new ideas to innovations

Innovation culture at Haas

If you google the adjective "innovative", the number of hits is close to 9 million. A large part of these hits leads to corporate websites. Most companies and institutions claim to be innovative. The term is also used almost daily in everyday speech, particularly at work. Everybody knows the term, many people use it, but hardly anybody really understands what being an 'innovative company' encompasses. We want to find out what the term means for Haas and made an appointment for an interview with the physicists Dr. Erich Gornik and Dr. Christof Strohhöfer. Dr. Gornik is chairman of Haas' Innovation Board. He can look back on a long scientific career that led him, amongst others, to the famous U.S. Bell Labs and most recently to a professorship at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien). Dr. Strohhöfer is also a physicist. He studied, amongst others, at the University of Karlsruhe and at Trinity College in Dublin, did research at the Fraunhofer Institute in Munich, then switched to medical technology and then joined Haas to put together the Innovation Group. We wanted to know from our two conversation partners what innovations are and how important they are to Haas.


"Innovation' literally just means 'improvement', 'new feature', new aspect.' If viewed from this perspective, could we simply say that everything new also constitutes an innovation?"


Dr. Erich Gornik: "No, from my perspective, new ideas or patents do not necessarily constitute innovations. An innovation is an idea that works in real life. It is the ability to take ideas, findings or developments and turn them into technical applications or products."


"Does this mean that innovation processes are technical processes?"


Dr. Gornik: "This is partially right. If we build a new machine that is based on principles that have not been used yet and this machine helps customers to save production costs, then we can call it an innovation."


Dr. Christof Strohhöfer: "If we want to use the term 'innovation' in this context, two things need to happen. We have to have a technology that is new. 'New' does not necessarily mean that it is a completely new development, it can also be an already known technology that is used differently or deployed in another area. And a demand must exist that this solution specifically targets. For this, we need excellent knowledge of customer needs. This only works if we pay close attention to the customers' objectives."




"So, acting innovatively means knowledge of customer objectives and seeing demand?"


Dr. Gornik: "Seeing demand has always been a prerequisite for successful entrepreneurial activities. If we react to a current customer issue with a new technical solution for his particular problem, then this counts as positive and innovative, but it is also a conservative definition of innovation. What we also need is a radical understanding of innovation. It means foreseeing the problems that the customer currently does not even have. It means offering solutions and options for developments that the customer does not even have on his radar yet."


"You mean, we must anticipate problems?"


Dr. Strohhöfer: "Right. Demand does not mean that I will wait until the customer tells me what he wants. The key here is to 'anticipate.' It presupposes that I know my customer very well, and thanks to this knowledge, I am able to recognize what the customer will very likely need even before the customer tells me about it. And these are then the radical innovations which Dr. Gornik just mentioned; aside from technical aspects, they also contain a visionary element. I would like to expand on this approach: If we ask ourselves how we can help our customer, we also have to get to know the customer's work processes and his long-term objectives. If we know all that, we will be able to offer radically innovative solutions. Solutions that target not only technical processes, but possibly also other processes and business models."


"Can you name an example for radical innovations for our readers?"


Dr. Strohhöfer: "The development from a regular telephone to a mobile phone and then to a smartphone is a good example, I think. Let's ask ourselves: 'Is the smartphone a radical innovation? '"


Dr. Gornik: "Yes. The already known telephony was combined with radio technology and computation and the result was something that did not exist before. Something new, a smart device that let's us exchange text messages, make photos, surf the web, play and, on top of everything else, make phone calls. Making phone calls only accounts for 10 - 15% of smart phone use."  


Dr. Strohhöfer: "On the surface, innovation consists in the combination of technologies. But the critical aspect from my perspective was that this also triggered a change in behaviour. Before, I had a wired telephone on my desk, and I could move maybe two meters away from the desk when I was on the phone. I was only reachable when I was at my desk. Today, I am completely independent of my desk; I can be anywhere and make phone calls, read documents on the phone display and do my work while on the road. This is a radical change in behaviour."


"The smartphone has dramatically changed our behaviour in less than one generation. Do innovations happen at increasingly faster speeds?"


Dr. Gornik: "Not significantly. The important inventions and technologies already existed long before we were able to use them on a smartphone. The type of application is the decisive factor here. To get there, one needs time, money and the knowledge what an invention might be useful for. This is where many companies stumble, possibly because they don't know whether they are on the right path. Radical innovations require a certain willingness to take risks."  


"Let's talk about the entrepreneurial importance of innovations. What is the benefit to a company that is innovative?"


Dr. Strohhöfer: "Innovative companies have higher growth and achieve higher margins; that's well proven by various studies. Growth and margins are important for a good human resources policy, for social commitment, and they create free resources for the company's further development through new innovation. One can say that innovation is a prerequisite in and of itself."


Dr. Gornik: "The competitive pressure in our globalised world drives this development. It has not been that long that a company was able to remain competitive in the market if its cost structures were optimised, e.g. if production costs were reduced by manufacturing in low-wage countries. Today, this is hardly enough since in many industries wage costs are no longer a decisive factor. Competition today is decided predominantly via innovation."


Dr. Strohhöfer: "For this reason, companies must be innovative if they want to position themselves well in the market and have a sustainable future through product, service and business innovation."




"What is the situation at Haas? How does innovation work in our company?"


Dr. Gornik: "Haas is an excellent engineering company which has gathered an impressive array of knowledge and expertise over the past decades and produces machines that are among the best in the world. We have become market leader through innovative engineering. But we have now reached a point where this alone is not enough. All production areas face increasing digitalisation; the slogan we know it under is 'Industry 4.0.' Engineering receives additional meaning here as we move into a field where the proportion of software-based components of a machine becomes increasingly more important for its performance; just think of the sensoring and monitoring systems. The planning process of future production platforms will give equal weight to engineering and software and integrate the two with each other. Haas has recognized this and is currently developing in this direction."


Dr. Strohhöfer: "There is a trend toward digitalisation in technology in all industries. This is related to the fact that memory chip performance quadruples every other year and becomes increasingly cheaper at the same time. These chips permit running increasingly higher performing software. The result is more performance at a lower cost. As a rule, it will be more cost-efficient to use software if this software is able to do things that we otherwise can only achieve through an engineering solution. Translated to wafer and cookie machines this means: software allows us to implement new functions and cost-efficiently enhance existing ones."


Dr. Gornik: "I have to tell a story about that. Many years ago, I was attending a physics conference in Heidelberg. The topic was car electronics. At this conference, I estimated that the proportion of electronics in our future cars would be about 30 to 40%. At this point, the chief developer of a large German automotive company stood up and said 'No, this is inconceivable. It is not possible to integrate more than 10% electronics into a car in a meaningful way.' Progress has overtaken us both; today the proportion of electronics in a car is 60%. This example shows that technical development simply goes beyond our imagination."


Dr. Strohhöfer: "We have to change our mind-set. When we speak of digitalisation, we often mean software that controls machines. But software can do much more, it can record and present data, we can evaluate and interpret these data and provide them to our customers to optimise their processes. The entrepreneurial potential for Haas can be found in our innovative approach to dealing with these data."


"Are the customers aware of how important these data can be, and if yes, why should they share them with us?"


Dr. Gornik: "We have to cooperate closely with our customers in that specific area. They will most certainly want to have these data, the question is whether they want to share them with us too, to improve our own machines. The data after all also show the information that our customers collect about their own production processes while working with our machines. They will not necessarily want to share this type of know-how with a manufacturer. But, ultimately, providing the manufacturer with certain data will provide them innovative solutions from the manufacturer."  


"How much time do we have for innovation?"


Dr. Gornik: "There is a certain urgency involved. We are in a global competition and are constantly under pressure. We at Haas have the advantage that we know a lot, manufacture with very high precision and offer more reliable engineering. If we make our machines smarter on top of that by digitalising their processes, we will remain ahead of the competition."


Dr. Strohhöfer: "We have the advantage that digitalisation in the wafer or cookie production is not as established yet as in the automotive or semiconductor industries. This makes it possible for us to learn from other industries and transfer their solutions to our processes or systems. This is not always easy because we have a different set-up; but learning from others could also be seen as an act of innovation and especially in cooperation with Bühler there’s a great potential for us and our customers."


Thank you for the interview!

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